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What really matters about digital cutting?

Lars Bendixen outlines the importance of criteria needed when investing in a cutter/router
The advantages of digital cutting and an efficient print-and-cut workflow are eminent and new digital cutter/router models and manufacturers continue to enter the market. Print service providers have been involved with digital printing for years and have become experts in evaluating, image quality, resolution, printing speed and other factors. But, when it comes to digital cutting, they may face a new challenge in evaluating and selecting as yet unfamiliar cutting/routing equipment. Popular multifunctional flat-bed cutter/ routers include Znd, EskoArtwork Kongsberg, Summa, Aristo and similar brands. In the following article we will discuss what really matters and what is important to look for when evaluating and selecting such digital cutter/ router equipment. they often realise it makes sense to buy a wider cutter than they actually need today. As you expect your business to grow, it is equally important to evaluate the cutter/router upgrade possibilities and in particular the cost of upgrading, both in terms of cutting capabilities and tooling and also in terms of productivity and automation. even the fastest cutter will never be more productive than the operators ability to remove cut parts and feed material. In terms of productivity, eliminating such idle time can be many times more effective than, for example, doubling the speed and acceleration figures. To figure out the real productivity you need to test the time the cutter/router requires to finish several copies of several of your jobs, using your selection of materials. Cutting with two knives simultaneously obviously doubles the throughput, so dont forget to check whether such twin-cutting functionality is offered. Robust or bulky looking cutter/routers are often expected to cut and route thicker materials faster. Remember that no chain is stronger than its weakest link and even the bulkiest looking or strongest cutter/router is never stronger than its weakest point. When cutting, the actual force which is put on the knife blade is mainly dependent on its geometry and how sharp it is (its ability to cut), how deep you cut and at which speed you are cutting. All popular cutter brands are easily able to move with forces which will break the blade; even bigger motors or stronger constructions, able to create even larger forces, will not necessarily bring the expected advantages. For routing, and in order to take advantage of the fast X/Y moving capabilities, most cutter/ routers use high frequency routing spindles capable of exceeding 30,000rpm. The weakest point is then usually the spindle bearings and the force put on the bearings is amplified by the length of the router bit. You must act suspiciously when manufacturers claim they can route deeper, faster, while utilising a high frequency spindle. The real question is how long the spindle will last when doing so? It is often assumed that cutting rigid paperboards like Re-board, X-board and similar brands require a lot of force/strength. Due to the clever construction of these boards, they are both lightweight and incredibly strong and rigid in use. But, for cutting, it is more relevant to consider the weight of the material rather than its strength or rigidity. Less weight indicates that the material contains more air and then often cuts quite easily. Cutting 16mm Re-board material at a speed of 1m/second typically requires around 100 Newton of horizontal force. For cutter/routers like the Znd G3 this is an easy task, even in a 24/7 operation.

Productivity matters
Another common mistake is to look at speed or acceleration as an expression for productivity. Specifications typically state speed and acceleration as maximum figures when following a straight line in one given direction. Actually, the figures may differ considerably for other directions and, in reality, you will be cutting different shapes consisting more of curves than straight lines. The cutter will further stop in corners to extract, turn and re-enter the blade which naturally also influences the productivity. When routing it is mostly the material and tooling that dictates the speed at which the cutter/router moves and, as a result, one can simply not rely on the cutter with the highest specification as being the most productive. Remember that productivity includes job preparation time, machine set-up or changeover time, cutting time and material handling time. A larger cutter and cutters with extensions in the front and back enables you to collect the cut parts and position the next sheet while cutting continues. Without such options,

Size matters
Digital printing technology develops fast and equipment normally has to be amortised quickly. Cutting technology, however, is different and when buying equipment it is a common mistake not to recognise that the lifespan of premium cutter/router brands often exceeds 15 years. It is, therefore, important to consider not only your requirements of today but also your expected future needs. Most look for a cutter size to match their current printing equipment; but when they look back to see how their printing formats have developed over time,

Eliminating machine stoppage due to material handling is the most effective way to increase productivity


Originally published in SPECIALIST PRINTING WORLDWIDE : ISSUE TWO : 2012

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Versatility matters
Digital cutting presents printers with an opportunity to expand and differentiate their offerings. Whether it is for new applications, new materials or new services, the larger range of tools available and the more features offered by the cutting system, the greater the opportunities. Even some opportunities appear unlikely or unimportant for the moment; but who knows what the next 15 years and more will bring? What happens when your competitor suddenly offers a capability or application that your cutter doesnt have? Obviously the question about cost of upgrading must be asked again. One often overlooked and underestimated feature is the ability to route to an accurate consistent depth relative to the surface of the material. Applications involving bending of Di-bond aluminium composite sheet, engraving, in-lays, Braille, and many aspects of illuminated acrylic signage require v-grooves and slots to be routed in exact and consistent depths into the material. Some cutter/routers are, however, only able to work with depth relative to the table surface. All table-plates have a flatness tolerance of perhaps a few tenths of a millimetre. Often cutter/routers are conveyorised and the conveyor belt has a thickness tolerance of a few tenths of a millimetre. On top of the conveyor belt, a sacrificial routing underlay is placed to protect the conveyor, adding yet another few tenths of a millimetre in thickness tolerance. Finally, add the thickness tolerance of the material being worked at and the fact that routing is not a clean process. In reality there can be routing debris from previous jobs stuck in between each layer and summing up all tolerances makes it impossible to route with accurate depth relative to the table-plate. For applications involving accurate depth, it is absolutely crucial that the cutter/router is able to work relative to the material surface and not just to the table-plate. Other often overlooked but valuable features include the ability to route soft alloys and 3D signage, create Braille signs, cut picture framing mounts, make multiple angled cuts and the ability to cut textiles. Digital textile printing is probably the fastest growing sector within the digital printing industry and trim-cutting soft signage is often still a manual process, causing a bottleneck in the production. Digital cutting of printed textiles is however not an easy task. Make sure to ask how to avoid wrinkles and stretching. Some cutters are able to advance automatically and pull the textile off a roll. But is the textile stretched by doing so? What do you do when the print/media is distorted but you still need to cut it at exact measures to fit a mounting frame? Which tooling is used to cut textiles and can the textile even be fixed on the cutter by means of vacuum?

Material fixation matters

When applying strong forces on a knife blade or router bit, it needs to be assured that the material wont move or be pushed away. Popular cutter/routers all use a vacuum system to fixate material while cutting, but not all vacuum systems are working equally efficient. Most systems apply a vacuum pump designed to generate a certain minus pressure. Such pumps are typically rated and compared by their nominal power consumption and a cutter/router may include, for example, one or two 4kW pumps. This is, however, merely an expression of power consumption and not a true indication of how well the material is kept in place while cutting. Whether such pump will apply the minus pressure it was designed for largely depends on the vacuum system being closed with no air flowing into the system. This means that all unused areas of the vacuum table must be covered or closed off in order to achieve a proper vacuum. In reality this is not achievable. For example, when routing there will always be air flowing along the path being routed. The more you route, the longer the path, the more airflow and consequently less vacuum and fixation is achieved. When working with porous paperbased or textile materials, air will be pulled through the material, creating a leak in the vacuum system which results in less vacuum and fixation. In practice, material fixation depends on a combination of vacuum and a certain airflow rate. Systems capable of high airflow rates therefore generally work better, especially for routing and cutting porous materials. For systems without high airflow capabilities, consider how much time is required to close unused areas by masking and finally, ask how much the vacuum system will cost you in electricity on a yearly basis. The vacuum turbine system used in the Znd G3 typically delivers five times higher airflow using only a fifth of the electricity required by conventional pump systems.

not only result in wasted, sometimes expensive material but could cause a need for re-prints, overtime, missed dead-lines and even lost customers. Just knowing this to be the case is usually enough to make most people uncomfortable. Operators are usually trained at the time of installation, but how much of this training is transferred when, subsequently, one operator has to train the next? How intuitive is the software? And does the system provide any guidance for the operator in selecting the proper tool, knife and corresponding settings for the job? What about software tools for job preparation? Can the next jobs be prepared while cutting? Consider carefully how dependent your company wants to become on operator skills and experience and how quickly a new operator can comfortably press the start button with confidence on the cutter. Digital cutting will always involve some trial and error and good accessibility is a real advantage. At times the operator needs to pause the cutter to check for example the cutting depth. Consider how easy this is and which features are offered to keep the operator safe in doing so. Can settings be adjusted in the middle of a job and cutting continued? Is the job, for example, lost when you trip the safety features or press the emergency stop?

Ease of use matters

Most cutter/routers are operated through software of varying complexity. With time and experience good operators may learn to work around certain limitations regardless of the cutter brand. But, lets face it, even good operators will not have the necessary knowhow from day one and once operators have proven their skills, they often move on and advance to other positions. The amount of time required for a new operator to get comfortably working with the cutter/router is a very important factor and comfortable is the key word here. While cutting is often one of the last processes before the product is packed and shipped to the customer, any mistake at this stage may

The weakest point of a cutter/router is often the tool/spindle bearings and not the X/Y drive system

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Originally published in SPECIALIST PRINTING WORLDWIDE : ISSUE TWO : 2012


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Robustness matters
Over its lifespan, the moving parts of a digital cutter/router will travel incredible distances and robustness should not be neglected. However, people interpret robustness differently; there is no exact measure for it and so it is difficult to make direct comparisons. Generally a cutter/router should have a solid base to absorb the frequent braking and acceleration of the tooling. The weight of the entire machine will give you a good indication of the mechanical build, and higher weight is usual better. The weight of the moving parts and tooling however should be low, as one can imagine, frequent acceleration and braking of heavy weight cause more mechanically wear and uses more energy than if it were lightweight. Vibrations are a known cause of mechanical wear and electronic failures etc. The smoothness of, for example, routed acrylic gives you a good indication of any vibrations. Robustness is often used as an expression for time between failures, meaning how often you could expect something to break. It is better to ask the manufacture for experience with industrial and heavy usage, around the clock over longer periods; dont be shy to ask for references.

With premium brands you should be able to trust that the manufacturer designed the strength of each individual component in accordance with the overall system. With other brands, this should not be taken for granted.

existing software? Do you need to purchase additional software and what about workflow? Who can give you the best advice and assure you always get the maximum return on your investment? n Lars Bendixen is Product Manager at Znd Systemtechnik

Original quality bits and blades matters

Remembering that no chain is stronger than its weakest link, it is equally important only to use original and highest quality blades and router bits. Premium blades and bits are manufactured with the highest precision and consistency both with regard to grinding and raw material specification. When spinning at more than 30,000rpm, low quality and unbalanced router bits can easily destroy even a heavy duty router spindle. Within the total cost of operation, the blades and bits represent only a minor factor and what may appear as an opportunity to save cost can easily turn into an expensive lesson. Serious manufacturers put a unique identification on each blade in order to trace any variation in blade life and performance. This aids the manufacturer to have continued development towards improved performance, at the end to your own benefit.

Common sense matters Check list: does your machine tick all the boxes?
Is the cutter large enough for the years to come? Does the cutter productivity offer sufficient reserve for your current production? How can the cutter productivity increase when your production increases? At what cost? Can the material handling be automated in case you need to reduce labour costs? At what cost? What options are offered to expand the tooling capabilities/applications?At what cost? How efficient is the vacuum system. Any need for blocking/covering unused areas? How much are the expected electricity costs? Is the cutting area easy accessible for checking cutting depth etc? Is the operator safe when doing so? How well does the cutter/router integrate into your current workflow and software? What does the warranty include/not include? Is service available with short notice? What will a service intervention actually cost you (travel, labour, parts etc)? Evaluating capital equipment is not an easy task but most of this article is actually common sense, once you know it. Common sense should also be applied to all further factors surrounding the actual product. Is local service available? At what cost? What about spare-parts and training? What about the software used with the cutter/router? Does it connect with your
The smoothness of routed acrylic reveals vibrations and can be taken as an indication of the systems robustness

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Further information:

Znd Systemtechnik AG, Altsttten, Switzerland tel: +41 71 757 81 26 email: web:

Many applications require v-grooves and slots to be routed in exact and consistent depths relative to the material surface rather than relative to the table surface

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High airflow rates improve material fixation


Originally published in SPECIALIST PRINTING WORLDWIDE : ISSUE TWO : 2012

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